The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) still owes R180 million for an unproven Covid-19 drug it procured in an illegal deal with a Cuban company.
This was revealed by South Africa’s secretary of defence, Gladys Kudjoe, who told the Portfolio Committee on Defence last week that the Cuban government was putting pressure on South Africa to pay the outstanding amount of the R215 million contract.
In October 2020, the Mail & Guardian first reported the SANDF purchased around R215 million’s worth of the antiviral drug Heberon, also known as Interferon alfa-2b, from the Cuban state-owned company TecnoImport to help treat its members who contracted Covid-19.
This was despite the health department’s recommendation against using the drug for treating hospitalised Covid-19 patients.
The procurement was also illegal because SANDF did not get permission from the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) to import the drug.
To date, no peer-reviewed studies have found any benefit from Heberon in treating Covid-19.
To make matters worse, the Auditor-General’s investigation into the procurement of the drug led to the discovery that doors at the cooling room where a portion of the drug consignment was stored were left open.
As a result, around 40% of the consignment was spoilt, and the SANDF had to destroy it.
The SANDF initially defended the procurement by claiming it was purchased not as a treatment but as a prophylactic biological product to deal with a biological threat to address a military problem.
According to the SANDF, it treated the Covid-19 pandemic as biological warfare.
It said that the purchase of Interferon should therefore not be seen as a line item. Instead, it was purchased to support the fight against a military biological threat.
However, in her first address to Parliament on 25 August, South Africa’s new defence minister, Thandi Modise, confirmed that “heads would roll” over the dodgy deal.
“Whether the efficacy is good or not is beside the point. The point here is who authorised this outside the health department. The procurement process must be followed. I can’t wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I want a helicopter’, and it is procured,” Modise stated.
Democratic Alliance MP Kobus Marais has called on the minister to cancel the outstanding amount on the contract.
“The claim that failure to pay the outstanding amount will negatively affect the bilateral relations between Cuba and South Africa is completely unfounded,” Marais said.
“Worse still, there is no evidence to show that the Cuban Covid-19 Hebron drug has World Health Organisation Certification on Pharmaceutical Products Quality.”
Marais added the defence department officials were not only unprepared during their presentation to the portfolio committee but were also not forthcoming on key information concerning the pharmaceutical drug deal.
The minister has promised that the ministerial report on the deal will be tabled in three weeks.
The DA said it is ready to lay criminal charges against those implicated once the report is available.
“Heads must not only roll for those who were involved in this shocking abuse of public resources, but they must also be held accountable,” Marais stated.
Marais told MyBroadband the remaining Heberon was being stored at the South African Military Health Service facility where the spoilt batch was discovered.